The Nomad Hawk stalled in open ocean water with her sails crossed against each oth­er. Araceli peered at the dis­tant island chain through her cap­tain’s scope from the side of the deck, her broad hip lean­ing on the side rail for sup­port. She heard a gull cry in the dis­tance, a sure sign of land.

Somewhere around here was their cross­ing point, a lit­tle short­cut through the sand­bars that would cut over a month off of sail­ing time into Nassau. With their hold full of sug­ar to sell, every day they saved meant more mon­ey in the pock­ets of their crew.

And a pirate ship was noth­ing with­out her crew.

Araceli scanned the islands, not­ing those with droopy palm trees and those with­out. The sun broiled every­thing, leav­ing wavy lines of heat in Araceli’s view. It warped the wood in the Hawk, giv­ing her a scent that stuck in the nose, a smell almost sweet when it was­n’t over­run by the salt of the ocean.

Ah, there! Captain Kyros’s nav­i­ga­tion was pin-point accu­rate, as usu­al. Despite thou­sands of nau­ti­cal miles, he’d brought them exact­ly where they need­ed to be. Which meant Javier owed her three shilling. Again.

He’d seen the cap­tain’s maps and notes with his own eyes, but could­n’t bring him­self to believe in the pow­er of math­e­mat­ics, a pity Araceli was not above exploit­ing.

Captain Kyros had learned his num­bers young, a skill Araceli knew was nec­es­sary, but still strug­gled with. Addition and sub­trac­tion she could han­dle. But the long divi­sion was com­plex and she could­n’t quite grasp the rea­son­ing of angles and degrees. All were nec­es­sary for nav­i­ga­tion, much of which Captain Kyros did in his head.

She still had much to learn from him.

Araceli col­lapsed the scope and addressed the crew, ”Stay crossed here, boys. Take a break.”

The on-deck crew count­ed less than ten, with the wind so steady here. The men broke from their posts to dis­ap­pear belowdecks and com­plain about the heat.

Cristoph, one of their new­er recruits, set his hand against his brow and frowned at the island smudges in the dis­tance. He was a full head and a half short­er than Araceli. ”Don’t look no dif­fer­ent than any oth­er spot, Quartermaster.”

Araceli liked this one. He was respect­ful of her rank despite her gen­der and col­or. He’d worked hard so far. Earned his half share sure enough. Unlike some oth­er crew mem­bers, he did­n’t need a reminder that she’d been vot­ed into her posi­tion for a rea­son.

”That’s the trick, innit?” she said. ”When the tide comes up, we’ll float right over that sand­bar there and be on our way.”

”But how’d you know it?” He looked at her, eyes curi­ous. Eager to learn. He’d go far if he kept that atti­tude.

Araceli shrugged one shoul­der as she stepped down to the main deck. ”You’d have to ask the cap­tain. He’s known about this spot before I came aboard.”

Cristoph scut­tled after her. He tidied lines as they went, coil­ing them under their belay­ing pins. The Hawk nev­er looked so dressed as when Cristoph ran around.

Araceli left him to it, head­ing belowdecks to report in with the cap­tain. The Nomad Hawk held only four decks, her top, a sin­gle gun­deck, her crew deck below that, and the hold full of bar­raled sug­ar. She was a shal­low-hulled boat, with a keel only the depth of anoth­er two decks, and as loaded as she was with goods, her water­line near­ly met the hold.

It was risky busi­ness run­ning so much sug­ar. Any leaks could ruin an entire bar­rel, and dam­age to the ship might destroy their entire haul. No one would buy wet sug­ar. The Hawk might have been fly­ing friend­ly flags, but she was a boat full of pirates look­ing to get away with­out pay­ing England her tax­es.

Yet anoth­er rea­son to cut their voy­age as short as pos­si­ble.

The crew deck: the men lived here, and the space held its own eclec­tic organ­i­sa­tion. Crates and bags of per­son­al items bal­anced among the scent of unwashed work­ing men. Above, hung neat­ly packed rows of angled ham­mocks, some stuffed with wool blan­kets. Trinkets and per­son­al­i­ty dec­o­rat­ed every latch. The sail stitch­ers excelled in embroi­dery had been adding col­or­ful embell­ish­ment to their grey blan­kets and pants in spare time. Those on deck for­feit­ed space to those below and the ter­ri­to­ry lines shift­ed with every tide. It was a place con­stant­ly chang­ing, but as long as the cen­ter isle remained clear, the Captain let the men han­dle their own affairs.

Araceli knocked twice on the cap­tain’s cab­in door at the back of the crew deck. She’d nev­er met a man like Kyros, and prob­a­bly would­n’t will­ing­ly sail under any­one else. He ran his ship in the tra­di­tion­al man­ner: with major­i­ty votes and open debate. He allowed every voice to be heard, even when he dis­agreed with them, because he was open to the idea of being wrong. He was­n’t afraid to show­ing such a weak­ness to his crew. If Araceli gov­erned in the same man­ner she nev­er would have made quar­ter­mas­ter. A free black woman did­n’t have any weak­ness­es aboard a ves­sel filled with white men.

”Enter,” Kyros said through the door.

Araceli entered. Kyros stood behind a small table mount­ed to the deck in the cen­ter of his room. His bed–with a real down mattress–off to the right looked like the remains of a hur­ri­cane. By con­trast, his desk and shelves to the left were metic­u­lous­ly orga­nized. Full of books, maps, and scat­tered with brick-a-brack they’d col­lect­ed or trad­ed over the years. Kyros him­self only stood to Araceli’s shoul­der, his head a mess of blonde chopped rough­ly with his own knife, but his ener­gy was as big as any­one. He could fill a room with his own excite­ment and be per­fect­ly con­tent.

”We’ve arrived,” Araceli report­ed. ”Perhaps two hours before the tide lets us cross the berms.”

”Excellent.” At this news, Kyros pulled a map from a neat stack on the edge of his desk and flicked it open. He mea­sured a dis­tance, marked it with time and date, then rolled the parch­ment back up. ”The wind is with us all the way in to Nassau, so I expect to make good time once we cross to the Gulf. You and the men can take some shore leave, yeah?” He glanced up at her, eyes strik­ing and sharp.

”The men would appre­ci­ate it,” she con­firmed.

His gaze soft­ened. ”Yes, and so would you.”

”Of course, Captain.”

”Kyros,” he said, look­ing down again at his paper­work. ”My name is Kyros, not Captain. What is it going to take to loosen you up?”

The ques­tion was large­ly rhetor­i­cal and a long-stand­ing point between them. Araceli was respect­ful of titles and posi­tion by more than habit. For a free black woman, it was sur­vival. But Kyros asked for famil­iar­i­ty from every­one when they stood in his cab­in, and he could give Araceli a run for stub­born­ness when he put his mind to it. So a stale­mate: Araceli called him cap­tain, Kyros asked her not to, and noth­ing changed.

”Ok, get the men ready for cross­ing,” he said. ”Remind them not to harass the sprites. I’ll take the helm in two hours.”

”Yes, Captain.”

Kyros,” he grum­bled qui­et­ly as she closed the door.

–//–

With the wind at her back, and men on the sweeps, the Nomad Hawk could hit near­ly nine knots as she flew over the water. That was­n’t nec­es­sary to cross the sand and coral berms at high tide, but Araceli won­dered if that was­n’t the smarter way to go.

The Hawk rocked gen­tly in the after­noon water. Araceli stood at the bow, one hand on a tight line, as she leaned over the rail­ing. She searched the bright water for rocks and corals that might impede the ship, but it was­n’t the sand that tru­ly both­ered her. It was the water.

Despite the light breeze, there was no chop here on the water in the lit­tle bay between islands. As the Hawk passed over the first sand­bar, her wake qui­et­ed, then stopped splash­ing alto­geth­er. Araceli would have thought them dead in the water except that the island’s trees con­tin­ued to pass in unnat­ur­al silence.

The breeze died. Water stopped lap­ping at the side of the boat. The Hawk only moved thanks to her momen­tum.

And down in the water, Araceli saw the sprites. They lived here in the hun­dreds of thou­sands, small lit­tle water-bod­ied crea­tures with large, lumi­nes­cent eyes and strange, sharp teeth. They swam over and through each oth­er, boil­ing up against the walls of the Hawk and splash­ing back. If Araceli focused, she could almost hear their high-pitched, scram­bled voic­es.

She shud­dered just as Christoph came run­ning across the deck.

”Quartermaster, what are those things down there?”

”Captain Kyros calls them water sprites. Keep your hands to your­self and they won’t both­er you.” Araceli put a warn­ing arm up as Christoph leaned over the rail. ”They are sim­ple beasts, but vicious. Like the piran­ha.”

”They are chew­ing at the boat down below!”

Araceli straight­ened. ”Show me. Now.”

Christoph ran for the lad­der that would take them below decks, Araceli hot on his heels. Her boots thumped heav­i­ly behind him and she felt her chest tight­en with anx­i­ety. A breach in the hold was their worst night­mare.

Gun deck, crew deck, Araceli land­ed hard on the deck of the hold and paused to lis­ten. There were few men down here, only a hand­ful like Christoph who had­n’t earned the priv­i­lege of sail­ing top deck or need­ed a reminder that the open air was not a right for all pirates. Her arrival had silenced them all and Araceli scanned the hold care­ful­ly.

Then she heard it, just a soft scrape at first, like the sound of a bone knife on hide. It moved around the hull, first fore, then aft, grind­ing gen­tly against the grain.

Araceli crept to the clos­est wall and placed her palm against the wood. She could feel the scrape vibrate right into her fin­gers.

”What on earth…?” She whis­pered.

It had to be sprites, but what exact­ly was going on here? Were they try­ing to eat the boat? The last time she’d sailed through this bay–and the first time she’d seen the sprites for herself–they paid the ship no mind. The bay had boiled with their agi­ta­tion, but the Hawk had passed eas­i­ly through the water and was gone again.

Something was dif­fer­ent this time.

Araceli spun away from the hull and took the lad­der two steps at a time. She did­n’t know enough about these crea­tures to make a deci­sion, but the cap­tain need­ed to know some­thing was brew­ing.

He must have felt the same, because Araceli found him half way down the crew deck lad­der shout­ing at Bram, the Hawk’s bosun and lore mas­ter.  ”They’re all riled up, I’ve nev­er seen any­thing like it!”

”Well–”

Araceli cut off any­thing Bram was about to say, ”Problem in the hold, Captain!”

”What?”

A sailor shout­ed from below, ”Breach!” His voice grew clos­er as he reached the stairs. ”Hull breach in the hold!”

No. Every hand on the crew deck stilled at the words, then rushed simul­ta­ne­ous­ly into action. Taking on water meant a num­ber of things: the goods in the hold were at risk, the boat could list or sink, and her path through the bay would stop entire­ly. Araceli and Kyros ran to the hold, slid­ing down the stairs on their arms. Araceli’s boots splashed into a pud­dle that had­n’t been there only moments ago.

They found a sailor on the star­board side press­ing a plank of wood hard against the hull. Water sprayed in every direc­tion despite, this, soak­ing the sailor and pool­ing below him. Araceli braced her shoul­der in beside him and togeth­er they cut off the flow. She point­ed across the hold and Kyros ran to sup­port anoth­er breach.

”Captain?”

Araceli rec­og­nized Javier’s voice at the stairs. The coxswain land­ed on the hold deck with a thump and he was fol­lowed by sev­er­al men.

”Over here, Javier. We’ve got two holes to patch, get Theo…”

The board Araceli leaned into shift­ed, and water spurt­ed sud­den­ly through. She adjust­ed the plank and reap­plied her strength, men­tal­ly spin­ning through the details of their sit­u­a­tion. Yes, the hold was as full as the Hawk could car­ry, but the water­line should have been low­er than this, down at the ankles, maybe. And the force of this breach made no sense. A hole in the hull leaked less at the top than it did down below, but Araceli had to brace her boot against a bar­rel and apply lever­age to help keep the board in place.

Were the sprites caus­ing this intense water pres­sure?

Theo sud­den­ly arrived with sev­er­al lengths of board. He was a big man, his shoul­ders matched Araceli’s, so when he wedged a tim­ber piece against their board and braced it with a few choice­ly ham­mered blocks, it was a stop that held firm.

Araceli clapped his shoul­der in thanks and sent the sailor help­ing her up to the top deck where she heard men run­ning fore and aft to seal the holes from the out­side.

Something pinched Araceli’s foot as she can­vased the hold and she kicked at it auto­mat­i­cal­ly. She found Kyros braced against a leak­ing board, both feet pressed against the hull as he pushed back against a bar­rel of sug­ar. Araceli put her shoul­der into the board and relieved him.

”What is going on?”

”Haven’t a clue,” he said. ”But accord­ing to Javier, the water out­side is flow­ing up the hull and into the holes.”

”They are above the water­line.”

A sud­den pulse lift­ed Araceli and the board she braced off the side of the hull. Water sprayed hard against the board, deflect­ed in every direc­tion, until Theo’s heavy shoul­der rammed the board back into place.

Water splashed against Araceli’s boots. The hold retained near­ly a foot of water now and they’d need to start bail­ing soon if the Hawk was going to stay afloat.

Kyros flinched hard and jumped up onto a bar­rel. ”Ow, shit. What was that?” He stared down at the water.

Araceli saw noth­ing. Then all at once, the water blinked and bright teeth flashed against her boots. Araceli kicked the sprite before it could chomp her, then stomped on the next one before it could get any ideas.

As it they’d been wait­ing to be noticed, the mass of water col­lect­ed in the hold divid­ed into its con­stituent sprites, and they each swam after a dif­fer­ent sailor.

”Shit!”

”Damn it!”

”What the hell?”

Boots stomped, crashed, and scraped across the hull. Sailors jumped up on bar­rels and ran back up the lad­der to get away. Araceli kicked a sprite hard against the side of a bar­rel and it splashed, but her boot put a hole in the wood and pris­tine white sug­ar poured into the water.

In a rush, sprites all over the deck con­verged on the bro­ken bar­rel until it was sur­round­ed by a bub­ble of water. The flow of sug­ar stopped, and for a moment noth­ing hap­pened. Then slow­ly, the water bub­ble moved inside the bar­rel, con­sum­ing sug­ar as it went.

There was a brief moment of silence. The hold was secure, the foot of water around their boots was gone, and the sprites had packed them­selves away into a con­tain­er.

”Grab it,” Kyros hissed. ”We’ll throw it over­board.”

Araceli eas­i­ly shoul­dered the bar­rel and made for the stairs. She did­n’t make it four steps before the bands on the con­tain­er snapped, the wood splin­tered in every direc­tion, and water drenched Araceli from head to toe.

Sprites nipped at her as they fell and she smacked them away.

”It’s the sug­ar,” she said. ”They want the sug­ar.”

”Then let’s give them some. Grab a bar­rel, Theo, you too.”

Kyros shout­ed his men into order, pair­ing them up to haul bar­rel after bar­rel up to the top deck. Araceli lead them with a bar­rel over her shoul­der to the star­board side, where she cracked the seal on her con­tain­er, then threw it over­board.

Water imme­di­ate­ly boiled over the barrel–sprites fight­ing sprites for the sug­ar inside.

Araceli point­ed they crew around the deck. ”Crack the top and throw one off every side!”

Barrels chucked with prej­u­dice land­ed in the water one after anoth­er.

”It’s work­ing,” Kyros shout­ed as he came to the top deck. ”The sprites are leav­ing the hold.” He point­ed at the clos­est sailor. ”Find Javier and tell him to put men on the sweeps.”

Araceli orga­nized the sug­ar bar­rels as they came up, unwill­ing to gam­ble on the sprites hav­ing filled their bel­lies with just the first four. By the time the Hawk lurched for­ward on her oars, the bay was lit­tered with half-emp­ty sug­ar bar­rels that rocked gen­tly in sprite-gen­er­at­ed waves.

Araceli had nev­er been so glad to see a sand berm in her life. From the bow she guid­ed Kyros between the islands and the oars surged them all out of the bay and back into open water. Only when the wind picked them up did Araceli’s shoul­ders fall with relief.

She looked back at Kyros from across the deck and shook her head. He shrugged in return. Such was life under his com­mand. It was true that she’d nev­er sail under any­one else, but it was also true that Araceli had nev­er seen the kinds of preter­nat­ur­al things she’d encoun­tered on this boat. Either the Hawk or Kyros him­self attract­ed with strangest sorts of crea­tures.

Araceli looked out to the hori­zon off the bow of the Hawk. Out there was Nassau, and with it, a prof­it for the sug­ar left in their hold. A gull cried behind them, wheel­ing in the air above the islands.